Teaching young kids to play third base takes special care and instruction because it requires a different skill set than that required of the other infield positions. Even at the Little League level, the third base position requires quick reflexes and a strong throwing arm. There are three aspects of strategy and training that are important to stress to your young player from the first time they field the position in practice.
Proper Positioning for third base can be broken down into 3 elements:
A hard hit ball by right hand batters will reach the third baseman much quicker than any other position on the diamond, so being ready to field the position is a key to success. A third baseman's ready stance should be balanced with his weight on the balls of his feet and his glove open and as close to the ground as possible. Your player needs to learn to keep his head up, lean his back forward without arching it or shifting his balance to the front and have his throwing hand next to his glove ready to trap any ground ball that he collects. During practice, it is important to remind your young players not to rest their elbows on the upper portions of their legs as this will restrict movement should he have to move to his right or left in a hurry.
Another key aspect of successfully teaching your Little League third basemen to field the position is to get them to understand where they are supposed to set up before the pitch. One great thing about the game of baseball is that its deliberate pace will allow you to work with your young third baseman to make these adjustments between every pitch. It is important to make sure your player knows where he is supposed to be during every scenario rather than allowing them figure it out for themselves.
At the Little League level, you will generally want to instruct a third baseman to play at a standard or medium depth if there are no runners on base. Your player should line up a few steps behind the bag and four to five feet off of the foul line. This will give them plenty of time to see the ball and judge its speed off of the bat. Often times, coaches will instruct a young third baseman to play even with the bag, or closer, in a no-out situation, but this can lead to harder-hit ground balls getting by for a hit before an inexperienced fielder can react.
There are numerous scenarios where your third baseman will need to adjust his positioning to react to the situation. Here are the three most common alternative depths your Little Leaguer will need to be aware of:
You will notice that we have not addressed positioning for guarding against the bunt. If you watch baseball played at a high level, you will see that the third baseman will take two or three steps onto the infield grass to anticipate the bunt and then another step or two forward as the pitch approaches the plate. We advise that you to avoid this technique and play your young infielder even with the third base bag in a bunt situation.
Bunt situations are often less defined in Little League games. While some coaches try to emulate major league strategy, there will be many times will a player will swing away or show bunt to draw the infielders in before swinging at a pitch. If a third baseman is moving forward with the pitch in anticipation of a bunt, he may be put in harm's way if the batter is swinging away. It is generally a good idea to err on the side of caution when it comes to the safety of young players learning the game.
When fielding a routine ground ball at third base, it is important to stay low and square-up the baseball. The ball will be coming towards your player a lot faster than it will for middle infielders, so making sure your player maintains a low ready stance is vitally important. A standard ground ball should be looked into the glove and trapped with the throwing hand. Once trapped, your player will need to learn to grip the ball while keeping it shielded in his glove and raising both hands to his chest. If the third baseman is making a throw to first, he should locate the first baseman's glove with his eyes, shuffle his right foot towards the direction of the throw and plant at a 90 degree angle with the line of his throw. He should then step firmly forward with his left foot as he makes the throw to first. Lining up the plant foot at a 90 degree angle will help keep all of your player's momentum and focus in a straight line with the throw's destination giving your player a better chance at hitting the target.
If your team is in a double play situation, your third baseman should field the ball as normal, but it will be necessary to make a quicker throw to the bag at second. After your player has looked the ball into his glove and begun raising it towards his chest, he should immediately plant his right foot rather than shuffling it and rotate his hips toward the bag at second as he throws. The throw should reach the second baseman or shortstop at shoulder height in order to give them a chance for a smooth transition on the throw to first. Practice this as many times as possible since the motion is a little bit different than a throw to first.
Not every ball hit to the third baseman will be a routine ground ball. It is very important to practice short hops and backhanded play as much as possible. In a backhand situation, you should instruct your third baseman to place his right foot directly behind the ball's path, stay low and extend with his arms rather than bend his left knee. For an effective backhand, your player's feet should never be parallel with each other at a 90 degree angle of the ball's trajectory. This takes a lot of work, and it may be a good idea to teach this technique with a stationary or very slow moving ground ball until your players feel comfortable.
There are very few occasions during the course of a game where a play at third base will be a forced out. Since there is the potential for player to player contact at a play at third base, it is important to teach your players to prepare to make a tag safely. In order to prevent an injury from a collision, it is vital to instruct your players to position themselves so that they allow the runner to have access to the bag, and that they are ready to receive a throw and apply a tag.
If a runner is on his way to third on a steal and a play is imminent, the third baseman should crouch and straddle the back third of the base. This allows the runner access to the front corner, and puts your infielder in a great position to field a throw and place a tag on the runner. He should be taught to hold his glove at his hip-extended so that he will have the ball in his glove only a foot or two off of the ground once he has received the throw. Once he has the ball, he can the block the back half of the base with his knee and upper leg and place his glove hand on the ground, protected by his right hand, and tag the runner at the front side of the base.
If the throw is coming from the outfield, it is important for safety reasons to instruct your player to straddle the bag on the foul ball side of the third base bag. He will keep the play in front of him, and he will not be guilty obstructing the base. If no play occurs at third, he will be safely out of the runner's path, preventing a potential collision.
Training a third baseman requires consistent practice in order to develop the instincts and agility the position requires. You will need to be careful when building up arm strength since young and growing arms can be susceptible to injury. Make sure good stretching is part of your practice routine, and that you find ways to teach the game that kids will enjoy.